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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Inside the City of the Dead

It is not often that we get a chance to glimpse inside the sealed up tombs of the dead.

Louisiana, because of its high water table, is one of those southern states that long ago preferred burying their dead in crypts rather than in the ground.

During Hurricane Katrina many of those who were buried in the ground went for a trip and floated out of the cemeteries and into the streets. The Days of the Floating Graves are well known to us.

Our cemeteries are composed of ornate tombs, crafted with skill and beauty to hold the dead above ground. In some cases, these tombs are hundreds of years old and they just cannot hold up against the harsher elements of heat and rain. In our older cemeteries its not uncommon to see cracks in the plaster and dark holes where bricks have fallen out.

I was always curious as to what was on the other side of those black cracks. As a photographer and a surrealist sometimes I can't help my curiosity. I'd put my eye to the crack and strain to see what was beyond the black veil. My mind would conjure images of what my eyes couldn't see.

One day I decided to find out. How could I see what was in there without disturbing the dead or desecrating a tomb? I tried putting my camera lens up the hole but without the flash the camera saw the same black I saw. 

One day I found a tiny LED light with a long bendable neck. It was very tiny, but just might be bright enough to illuminate an already dark space. So I bought it and carried it with me for while when I would go out to photograph in the cemeteries. 

This is not the kind of thing that happens often. You do not find many openings into tombs and those you do find often yield up a pretty crappy photo. But I was patient. I carried my little light with me often. I found a few cracks but they were not big enough to get the lens close enough to take a shot. 

And then one day I found the perfect tomb. It was out in the middle of nowhere. One of those cemeteries lost to time and left to molder in the damp Louisiana bayous. And to my surprise I caught this single image. 

You can clearly see the spinal cord and pelvic bones of some long lost body. The tomb was unmarked. The dead to remain nameless. But my tiny light had worked! 

That was two years ago. In that time I'd not been able to capture another elusive tomb image, until this week. 

In a cemetery out on the Cajun Prairie I found a decaying tomb, again without name or date upon it, with a narrow break in the top. So I aimed my camera the best I could and snapped this.

When I got back to the studio the next day I found that the shot caught perfectly a field of bones strewn across the floor of the tomb and the fragile petals of a linen flower still in full color keeping the bones company. 

Now don't get me wrong. I am not looking to desecrate tombs, nor am I a ghoul. I am simply a curious photographer who has a chance to glimpse a world few get a chance to see once the tomb is sealed and the mortar dries. The chances are that it will be a long time before I get the opportunity to take such a photograph again. But you can be sure, if I see the opportunity, I'll most likely take it. These are the moments photographers live for. A shot that few others have the chance to ever take.


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